Fort Reno's Cold War-era "undisclosed location"

I had wondered what that was…

by David Rotenstein

Tenleytown's Fort Reno Park is Washington's highest elevation. In addition to the Western Union Telegraph Company's microwave relay terminal, water towers and more, it hosts a secure "continuity of government facility," built at the height of the Cold War to protect members of the executive branch during a nuclear attack.

Fort Reno Park. Photo by the author.

When terrorists struck the morning of September 11, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney was whisked from his Washington office to a secure "undisclosed location." The term "undisclosed location" gained new currency as it rapidly swept through popular culture via the press and the Internet.

For most of the last half of the 20th century, one of Washington's most significant undisclosed locations has been hidden in plain sight. Its secrecy eroded after the Internet made it possible to widely disseminate previously and currently classified documents.

Cheney's undisclosed location is rumored to have been a Cold War-era facility buried deep beneath Raven Rock Mountain near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. Located east of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, the Raven Rock Military Complex is also known as Site R and it was designed as the Alternate Joint Communications Center (AJCC) where senior military officials were to be taken in the event of a nuclear attack.

Site R was among the first relocation facilities built in the 1950s and early 1960s as federal planners conceived of and realized a Federal Relocation Arc extending outwards from Washington where key documents and people could be sheltered during and after a nuclear exchange.

These relocation sites were part of a sophisticated program developed to ensure continuity of the federal government in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. According to a 1958 civil defense agency publication, continuity of government involved "preserving and strengthening civil leadership in the event of nuclear attack." The government's four objectives to achieve continuity of government were:

  1. Establish emergency lines of succession for top executives, legislators, the judiciary, and other key personnel;
  2. Preserve essential records;
  3. Establish emergency locations for government operations; and,
  4. Make full use of all governmental personnel, facilities, and equipment for emergency operations.

By creating the hardened sites with microwave communications facilities, federal planners were ensuring safe havens for the executive branch that would remain in contact with other civil and military leaders throughout a crisis. The Federal Relocation Arc included above- and below-ground sites located within a 300-mile radius of the nation's capital. Sites included existing buildings like the Greenbrier Hotel (for members of Congress) and college campuses throughout the region.

"Corkscrew" facility located at Lambs Knoll near Boonesboro, Maryland. Photo by the author, 2004.

The presidential emergency facility (PEF) sites were built and administered through the executive branch's White House Military Office and communications personnel were attached to the White House Communications Agency (WHCA). The presidential emergency sites were "literally holes in the ground, deep enough to withstand a nuclear blast and outfitted with elaborate communications equipment," recounted former White House Military Office Director W.L. Gulley.

According to Gulley, funds to support the sites wound their way through a circuitous route in the Defense Department. "Authorization to spend the money, although it was allocated to the Army, was given to the Navy — specifically, the Chesapeake Division, Navy Engineers — who didn't know what the fund was for." All oversight for these facilities originated in the White House Military Office.

Map showing presidential emergency facility locations.

The sites in the Arc key to ensuring open lines of communications were built in a network that relied upon line-of-sight microwave technology, i.e., each transmitter and receiver had to have an unobstructed line-of-sight between its nearest neighbor for the network to be viable. These microwave hops were usually no more than fifty miles apart.

"I'm assuming that when they did their studies they knew specifically where the main terminals were going to be and they looked for locations that they had line of sight to," explained John Cross, a retired Army sergeant who was assigned to WHCA. "And they were all, you know, within probably maybe forty miles of each other."

According to Cross and other former government employees, there were 75 Presidential Emergency Facilities among the 90 or so Federal Relocation Arc sites. Only a handful of the properties were designed as a key communications node in the continuity of government microwave network. The sites were known by their locations, i.e., Raven Rock or Lamb's Knoll; and, they each had code names, all of which began with the letter "C":

Each of the sites included a 100-foot cylindrical tower, two-thirds of which was solidly built to house transmitters and receivers, supply rooms, and quarters for the skeleton staff which oversaw the facilities around the clock. The upper portions of the towers held parabolic antennas aimed towards the next facility in the network.

These antennas were shielded by radio frequency-transparent Plexiglas that protected the antennas from the elements and concealed them from view while enabling radio waves to pass through. The towers were connected to elaborate underground bunker complexes and entry to the facilities was through massive blast doors.

"Cannonball" site in Mercersburg, Pa. Photo by Cham Green and provided by John Cross.

Because the towers were highly visible yet top-secret, no official explanations of their functions ever were released. Local residents near the Lamb's Knoll site near Boonesboro, Maryland, speculated that the tower was a missile silo. Cannonball, where Cross was stationed, and Camp David's Cactus site were believed to be water tanks.

"People around Mercersburg thought it was a water tower," Cross recalled. "We used to buy water from the City of Mercersburg and we had a water tanker that we'd haul water back up to the mountaintop so they saw that and they saw, you know, the water tanker and they just figured that they were getting better water pressure that way." During Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's 1959 visit to Camp David with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Cactus facility's tower sported an observation deck and signage to reinforce the perception that the structure was in fact a water tower.

Fort Reno "continuity of government" site. Map adapted from Bing Maps.

Tenleytown's PEF was code-named "Cartwheel" and it fit well among early twentieth century water towers in Washington's Fort Reno Park: "Radar and other sound-sensitive antennas, dishes, and horns were installed atop a new brick tower at Reno — the one that does not hold water. The underground communications center reportedly links the White House with other larger centers in the Middle Atlantic states," wrote local historian Judith Beck Helm in her 1981 book, Tenleytown, D.C., Country Village into City Neighborhood.

Cartwheel, Fort Reno Park. The Cartwheel tower is the leftmost structure. The two masonry buildings on the right are historic water towers. Photograph by the author, 2010.

Because of its elevation and proximity to key private-sector communications facilities, like Western Union's microwave relay terminal, Fort Reno became an early Cold War continuity of government site. Besides Western Union's microwave terminal and a Washington Gas radio repeater station, other private and public sector radio facilities were located in Tenleytown. These included police radio repeaters, a WTOP broadcast facility, and civil defense warning systems.

Early in the Cold War, the government established an Alternate Command Center in the old Reno school building. According to historian David Krugler, the Reno school site was a civil defense warning site meant to alert public safety officials of a potential airborne threat.

By the late 1950s, the Fort Reno "Key Point" site, along with much of the region's civil defense planning, was found to be obsolete and ineffective in the face of massive potential blasts from thermonuclear weapons. In 1955, the Washington Post reported that the abandoned school site and its radio tower had become a safety hazard to local children.

Although much of the Defense Department's activities in Fort Reno Park remain shrouded by secrecy, Cold War communications enthusiast and Web curator Albert LaFrance has identified one document that sheds some light into Cartwheel's history. A 1994 memo posted at LaFrance's website reports that the Department of Defense acquired 4.83 acres north of Chesapeake Street, NW, from the Department of the Interior in 1951. Between 1951 and 1953, according to the 1994 memo,

The U.S. Government installed an underground defense communications system. In addition, radar and other sound sensitive antennas, dishes and horns were installed on top of a tower constructed for that purpose.
The dates that include the tower provided in the 1994 memo appear to be a little early, however. According to the Washington Post, the army took over five houses in 1951 on the north side of Chesapeake Street where an "anti-aircraft" unit then was stationed. The Post reported that the homes were occupied by troops engaged in "anti-aircraft tests" and that besides housing the troops, "certain equipment" (marks in the Post article) was stored in them.

Cartwheel. Closeup of concealed antenna decks, 2010 photo by the author.

A sketch map appended to the 1994 memo illustrates the Fort Reno Cold War landscape and historic aerial photographs show that the concrete tower was built between c. 1957 and 1963. Officials may have disguised construction of the underground facilities in the mid-1950s as new reservoirs were excavated in Fort Reno Park. The Washington Post reported on the construction of the new reservoirs starting in 1956 but nothing appears to have been written on the new communications tower.

1994 government memo map showing Fort Reno site.
Original scan posted at Albert LaFrance's Cold War communications site.

The new Fort Reno tower contained microwave antennas, transmitters, and receivers that required line of sight links to other radio sites in the network. Line of site technology means that the beam from one station must travel in a straight line, unobstructed, from one antenna to the next. Former communications officer Cross explained how the Fort Reno site fit into the larger system:

We took care of communications. We had the main link was microwave that we shot between — well it was actually Camp David to Cannonball to Cowpuncher to Crystal and then I had two shots from Mercersburg from Cannonball to Cartwheel. Cactus had microwave running into Cadre and Cartwheel shot down to — Cartwheel shot to Corkscrew and also to crystal, which was Fort Weather.

So we basically had a circular route from all those locations and Cartwheel was more of the spoke where multiple systems went through Cartwheel.

Cannonball Tower. Cross-section drawn by John Cross.

Since the facilities were top-secret, few detailed descriptions of their interiors have surfaced. John Cross never photographed Cannonball or the other facilities he visited while assigned to WHCA. Cross has prepared several line drawings illustrating the interiors of Cannonball, Cactus, and Cartwheel. According to Cold War communications enthusiasts, the concrete towers were designed to deflect the force of a nuclear blast. Cross explains their construction,

Well it was solid concrete. You know the air system was filtered so that if anything did happen all the air intake would be shut down and you had a filtration system. Everything was I guess primarily engineered you know with the concrete. Now you know there was always some possible problems with the antenna decks where we had spare microwave dishes that could be put in temporarily if anything happened that, you know, a blast would be close enough to tear off some of the dishes. We had spare dishes that we could put in in a fairly short period of time, that we could replace them. But the structure itself with concrete was really about the biggest thing.

Cartwheel first floor plan. Sketch by John Cross.

By the early 1970s the Presidential Emergency Facilities were being decommissioned. Cross recalls closing down Cannonball in 1970 shortly after significant upgrades were installed. Changes in communications technology and continuity of government plans obviated the 1950s facilities.

Most were transferred from Army control to other agencies. Corkscrew (Lamb's Knoll) and Cartwheel (Fort Reno) were acquired by the Federal Aviation Administration and their towers remain in use. Mt. Weather remains a top-secret facility and Cannonball was abandoned and sold, its tower exposed to the elements and vandals. The towers at Cactus (Camp David) have been demolished and Site R is abandoned.

Cartwheel, Corkscrew, and Cannonball were critical continuity of government sites during the Cold War. Their highly visible towers became part of an industrial landscape defined by telecommunications infrastructure essential to the information-based third industrial revolution. Beyond their highly function roles in the ubiquitous military industrial complex, they also were places where people worked and lived.

"I had a lot of fun, you know, even though it was a job, I had a lot of fun," recalled John Cross during our spring 2010 interview. "You know, the funny thing about it, I worked with people that were both at Crystal and Cadre and Cartwheel for years after we closed down those sites. But we never discussed what went on at those locations."

About this post

An earlier version of this post appeared on my blog and it was published in the Recent Past Preservation Network's Summer 2010 newsletter. Much more information on the Cold War sites discussed in this post may be seen on Albert LaFrance's A Secret Landscape: America's Cold War Infrastructure Website. Thanks are due to John Cross for sharing his memories in an oral history interview conducted by Skype.



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